I found this book, along with some others from the 1860s and 70s, in a pile at the back of a closet, and now I’m altering it as a form of therapy.
It’s also a way to play, to discover, and to stay curious. What strange repetition of images and contexts will I find? What is this found poem trying to say say to me?
In my mind there’s an emotional context that a reader might not experience, but it doesn’t matter. We make our meaning of it as the moment happens. The reader finds their own meaning, and the drawings add another layer.
It’s very restorative, the process of finding poems. It’s a moment I can dip into over and over, pour m’amuse.
The nutsy granola, aging-hippie in me chafes at the book’s intended purpose and audience, which is to introduce young, working class men to “polite society,” to help them polish off the rough edges and give them a boost in status.
But it also is fun to leaf through it to read the party tricks they teach, which all rely on word games or versions magic tricks such as “the three matches.”
My enormously generous and gifted friend Georgia Writer [my name for her on this blog], invited me to an actual community poetry workshop and open mic, in person!
This declaration warrants an exclamation point considering I read two new poems as well as an erasure poem that Georgia Writer guided us to write. I got so emotionally charged during the outdoor reading that I grew flustered and tripped over the mic cord on my way back to the seating area.
Of course, I warned everyone that I had retired from teaching this year and have been pretty much in lock down since Thanksgiving. I’ve barely seen my own family members, including my 81-year old mother, who, I’m grateful to say, is very healthy because of an active lifestyle, good fortune, and lots of time outdoors in the garden and on trails.
Georgia Writer is a longtime university librarian, poet, and natural historian, a true polymath. Several years ago, when I visited her university office, it was like entering a cabinet of curiosities: sculptures, drawings, birds’ nests, wasp nests, animal skeletons, plants and plants and plants under lights and in terrariums. Of course, there were towers of books everywhere, and yes, she really does read them all.
In the past, she has bequeathed me older but still completely gorgeous poetry journals. She has also inspired my love of making books by giving me decorative paper scraps from former poetry chapbooks she has hand sewn and designed through her poetry press, La Vita Poetica. I still have the paper she gave me even after sharing the bounty with summer camp kids and my own art projects.
I admire her so much and consider her to be a poetry and art mentor. Her own poetry is some of the most beautiful poetry I’ve read. Although not a strict formalist, Georgia Writer’s craft of poetry is sublime.
The librarians provided packets with post-its sharpies, and pages of old magazines or discarded books–– the one that caught my eye was from a Victorian garden periodical. My packet came with a green sharpie, which struck me as an instance of synchronicity, so I went to town with the green.
G.Writer gave a brief lecture on surrealism and Dada, and then we created a spontaneous exquisite corpse, the only constraint being that half of us began our lines with “Either” and the other half with “Or.” Our collective poem became so beautiful as we uttered our phrases and images into the dome of blue sky above.
A full pink moon rose over the tree line as I drove home.
Drawing at sunset on a still cool spring evening. Such a balm to immerse myself in fantasy, to tell stories to myself about plant people among the trees, bringing them to life while sipping a Juneshine, listening to Ella Fitzgerald and the birds.
Starting in January of 2021, I joined Daily Sketch, a Zoom drawing class that meets three days a week.
The teaching artist is Meagan Burns, who, in the before times, led art workshops in Mexico and other places around the globe.
My friend discovered these daily sketch classes last year, and her enthusiasm for the experience motivated me to try my hand at watercolor sketches myself.
Meagan is a patient and upbeat instructor. She allows light banter during our warm ups, and after each 20 minute sketch, she gives us time to share our drawings. She asks where we started, what materials we used, and at the end shows us her work and how she approached the subject.
The drawing I posted above is a combination of two references, a photo of two hands opened up like a book, and another of a large butterfly that looked like it was superimposed with a layer of neon pink.
Since my drawing skills are limited at best, I always add an element of imagination to camouflage mistakes I make or to get my ego out of the way.
I love surrealism and the techniques the surrealists used to jettison conditioned thinking about art and to let chance operations and stream of consciousness come to the foreground.
So if I make a mistake with the lines, I go with the mistake and improvise with color or context. Then my imagination takes off and I start musing about scenarios and settings that are based in myth or folklore.
The poet Anne Sexton is known to have experimented with her typing mistakes by keeping them in the poem and allowing them to change the direction of her writing. In this way, I can see how my playing with watercolor sketches influences how I write and the kinds of poems I hope to create in April.
The word “pandemic” derives from the Greek words “pan,” meaning “all” and “demos,” meaning “people.”
The etymology of “pandemic” is different but somewhat related to the word “panic,’ which traces back to the French, “panique” and the Greek god Pan, the deity with goat legs, the torso of a man, and goat horns growing from his man-like skull.
According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Pan became an exceedingly popular god whose name soldiers invoked in the heat of battle. Later, the terror and chaos that arises during war was also associated with this god.
My husband, a medical news journalist, began covering daily coronavirus reports the last week in January, after our return from the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.
By mid February, we saw how the virus was spreading like a panic. February 18, the stock market crashed in a virus-related scare, and I began to wonder if AWP would be canceled. But at that point I thought it would be fear mongering to ask my friends if they still planned to go.
Two weeks later, the conference went ahead as planned, but by late February and even into the first week of March, many of my friends decided not to go because they didn’t want to inadvertently bring the virus back to their own communities.
It wasn’t until the first week in March that the pandemic arrived in the county where I live. That week we were already doing “chicken wings” and “foot bumps” as greetings at the yoga studio where I practice. We were spacing ourselves at least six feet apart. The YMCA where I swim laps closed its group exercise programs, swimming lessons, and their child care hours.
The new coronavirus pandemic has also caused pandemonium, Latin for “the place of all demons.” It created “panic buying” among the people, as we raced to stores to buy cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and pantry items.
On Thursday, March 5, I pulled into a Trader Joe’s parking lot after a blissful yoga class. Even under ordinary circumstances, it’s inadvisable to enter a Trader Joe’s parking lot after practicing yoga, just because of the parking lot squeeze.
But I braved suburban car frenzy to buy some wine and a few other items for dinner, and was shocked to find almost the entire store depleted of bread, milk, frozen food, and staples like rice, pasta, and canned goods. (Plenty of beer and wine remained!)
It turned out that while I had been supine in savasana in a state of relaxation, the county school system had announced that schools would close and would transfer to an online platform.
One man in the county had been hospitalized and died, and several school staff members had come down with covid19. Apparently, many individuals had traveled to Italy during February and thus were exposed at airports or at their destinations.
We are all makers now. We are pan-artists. Some will make songs and stories to express their longings, their fears, their loneliness,
Others will bake bread, make yogurt, and grow gardens, domestic work that many have now recently embraced if they have the privilege of staying home.
I’ve written only two poems so far this month. The concept of April as poetry writing month has lost urgency for me. Poetry and art and all forms of myth-making and meaning-making are a means of spiritual survival now. It’s an ongoing practice that continually renews and sustains me.
Yoga, poetry, painting, long walks, and chopping vegetables are my way of loving the world and loving life. I hope all beings everywhere can look within and find what makes them whole, what heals them.
I could spend an entire day navigating the links Maria Popova includes in her articles on Brain Pickings.
In this one, a letter Frida Khalo wrote to Georgia O’Keefe, Popova extolls the virtues of creating community through letter writing and sharing. She praises the compassion Khalo and O’Keefe showed each other when one of them was suffering, and uses their correspondence as evidence that artists don’t work in complete solitude. We thrive on support and love.
She links to Brian Eno’s concept of “scenius,” a play on the word “genius,” meaning a collective of ideas, an ecology of artists and thinkers who respond to each other and the world, which she found in the book Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon.
Reading these two articles has inspired me to get back to a practice of sharing my creative process rather than storing it privately until I’m ready to publish (even though I am, in fact, publishing it here).
The poem I’ll be sharing is raw, unfinished writing that I do as a ludic exercise. I may or may not come back to it. Perhaps I’ll cull a line or two from this writing. Or maybe I’ll like the finished result!
This book is a treasure for anyone who wants to go deeper into their unconscious mind to reveal thoughts or feelings the waking mind refuses to acknowledge.
The prompt I’m working on is titled “A Journey to Nowhere” by poet and writer Susan Snively. Snively suggests beginning the poem with a predicament of some sort in which the speaker arrives at an unexpected location. The point is to interrupt our preconceived notions and let the poem take the poet on a journey, not the other way around.
Snively gives a few pointers about how to achieve a certain cohesion in what will be a long narrative poem. I’m following one of her suggestions by following an eight-line rhyme scheme:
My plan is to write a stanza a day during the month of April.
Here are my first two stanzas. I have no title and I don’t know where this poem will take me.
A shaft of light lusters the velvet green of hills
Like a woman’s hand smoothing pleats,
Soft as the delicate calm after taking nerve pills. Look at me, I’m on top of the world
The child says. From between large clouds
A bird of prey soars like an omen. My heart beats
In my ears, from the climb, from the load
I carry, set aside for now. As the breath stills,
The mountains extend, like branches of mind,
Or mind attaches, an appendage of mountain.
The body thins here, as though it were a kind
Of muslin scrim between me, the air, the sun.
Now permeable, flapping like a gauze blouse in the breeze
clothes-pinned to a line, a ghost living with ease
Of movement, like the bird, the sun,
Tethered, but just barely, to the Pyrennes.
It’s enough to make me leave the body behind.
Writing to an image, especially a painting, helps me find inspiration. Ekphrasis, from ancient Greek, is a description of a visual work of art. Usually, ekphrastic poetry describes a painting, but some poems might enter a film or a sculpture.
The surreal paintings of Mexican artists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington have sparked my creativity. My most recent ekphrastic poem, “The Women Have Gathered to Welcome Him Back to Himself,” explores a painting by Leonora Carrington titled The Temptation of St. Anthony.
I’m pleased and honored that the journal Ekphrasis chose to publish this poem in their Fall/Winter 2014 issue, and that they have nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. St. Anthony lives on through poetry!
Call it luck or synchronicity, either way I was happy to have run into Dan Veach at the Decatur Book Festival, because I returned home with a signed copy of his collection of poetry, Elephant Water.
Veach chronicles Elephant Water’s genesis within the structure of the book. He introduces each section with a biographical note about where he was when the poems were written, and at the back of the book he has a geographical list for easy reference.
Place plays a strong part in how these poems unfold, because the energy of the people, the land, the flora, and the fauna of each location inform the poems. Jane Hirschfield writes about Elephant Water, “The joy of these pages is a rare note in American poetry. Awareness infuses every page, as does close observation.” These poems are intimate with the spiritual pulse of life.
Chinese poetry and ink drawings have also added their touch to Veach’s palette. Each page includes one or more of Veach’s whimsical, delicate line drawings done in the Chinese style. Elephants, seals, moths, fish, birds, and dogs are not only the subjects of some of the poems, but they also lilt across the pages alongside the text in the form of drawings. The book cover, Veach’s own design, blends sky blues to watery indigos, providing an ethereal backdrop for his animalia.
It is rare pleasure to hold and read a book of poems for adult readers that includes original artwork by the author. Although Veach’s drawings come out of a time-honored tradition, it is one that has been somewhat neglected in recent times, at least in American verse.
William Blake is known primarily as a poet, but those who love his poetry also revel in his transcendental paintings and drawings. English poet Smith worked by drawing, and often the poems came out of the images that appeared first. And Richard Wilbur made line drawings to accompany his light verse. It is gratifying to see Veach continuing this poetic collaboration with visual art.
Another influence on Elephant Water is Veach’s love of music. He is a clarinetist, and I have heard him perform by reciting his poetry and playing the clarinet, a real treat. His love of music is evident in both the themes of some of the pieces and the attention he gives to the verse, with unobtrusive rhymes appearing here and there, a feathery, song-like punctuation.
The poet invites us to read the poems aloud. In his introductory lyric essay Veach writes, “For this is poetry with body as well as mind, poetry that invites you, like “My Long Thigh Bone,” to dance.
Elephant Water is published by Finishing Line Press, and can be purchased directly from the author at his website. Dan includes sample poems on the site for you to enjoy. You can also buy the book on Amazon.
Poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) is known and loved for her ballad-like poems and the ironic yet confessional lyrics she often paired with expressive drawings. But she was also one of the first performance poets–she created a performing persona for her poetry festival readings during the 1960s. At the age of sixty she wore lace stockings and pinafores to her readings, and she even sang the poems during her performances.
In an essay I’m writing about Smith, I argue that listening to Stevie’s recordings provides another layer of meaning to the experience of her work. During my research, I’ve rekindled an interest in Spoken Word poets in general, and I’m thinking about how my own writing will change as a result of what I’m discovering.
Here is a quote from an interview on Stephen Mill’s Joe’s Jacket with poet Megan Volpert, who has performed her poetry and competed in Slam competitions. Megan has transitioned from her performance work (although she still gives entertaining, creative, and interactive readings) to writing poetry collections, but she has this to say about what she has learned from her both stage and writing experiences:
Freeboarder has been at art school for a month, and already he’s questioning the need for an academy to teach him how to make something.
I’m proud of him for asking the questions. The same debate occurs in the world of poetry, with many wondering if there is a need for the now ubiquitous M.F.A. in creative writing.
One talented student told Freeboarder that “art is dead.” My answer to that statement is that art simply is. The student was probably trying to sound provocative and oracular. Maybe he wanted to psyche out his competition.
Going to art school allows the artist a chance to live within a community of skilled, committed people. Of course, we can create those communities ourselves, outside the Academy.
Atlanta has a thriving arts community that originates with the people. We have wall art, street sculptures, and spoken word events, all outside the ivory tower.
Freeboarder got a little shaken from the statement that art is dead. I told him that if art is dead, human culture is dead, because the act of making is an inborn, human right.